The Dogs of War
Breezy was a beautiful bitch, and Chuck Milner loved her dearly.
He loved the way she seemed to float as she walked, the way she held her exquisitely formed, regal head high like a princess. She had perfectly shaped almond eyes, an aquiline nose. She was very well-traveled and a winner almost from the start.
Two years Breezy's junior, Lana had her special assets, too. She possessed a beautiful coat and a sweet temperament, but was no less aristocratic in bearing than Breezy.
Sitting in the Oak Lawn salon where he works as a hairdresser, Milner gingerly opens two small wooden boxes, filled with coarse, light-colored ashes.
"This is what's left of Breezy and Lana," Milner says, his eyes tearing up. "It's sickening."
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Lana and Breezy were prize-winning, registered long-hair Afghan hounds, with superb pedigrees and extraordinary promise.
They were close to becoming champion show dogs and had several good breeding years ahead of them when they met an untimely death two years ago. Their deaths were the result of tragic and unusual circumstances that are now at the center of two lawsuits.
The way Milner tells the story, it is a quintessential Texas tale--of beauty pageants and betrayal, of a canine love triangle and possible medical malpractice.
At the time of the dogs' deaths, Milner's close friend and steady client, Sandra Merlo, was keeping them. Milner had acquired Merlo as a client from another hairdresser at the Stanley Korshak salon, and was in the process of trying to find a new landlord who would allow him to keep his 15 show dogs at home.
Milner says Merlo had offered to look after the dogs while he searched for a new home. Milner says his friend grew extremely attached to the dogs--perhaps too attached.
Shortly before Merlo was supposed to give them back, she boarded them for the weekend at the Addison-Beltline Animal Hospital while she vacationed in Vail with her husband.
Allegedly without Milner's permission, she instructed veterinarian William L. Anderson--a prominent and respected Dallas animal doctor who is the official vet of the State Fair of Texas--to have the dogs spayed. Milner says he believes Merlo did this to diminish their worth so he wouldn't want them back; after the operation, Milner would no longer be able to breed or show the dogs.
A day after Breezy and Lana underwent what is normally routine, low-risk surgery, the dogs died--having bled to death during recovery.
Milner was left with his ashes and his anger. And a broken heart.
"I can't even watch the weather report any more," he says. "Everytime I hear the word 'breezy,' I just break up."
Propelled by his grief--and by what he deemed a friend's ultimate betrayal--Milner filed a lawsuit in August, 1994 against Merlo and her husband James Kumpf, accusing them of "illegal conversion"--willfully and without authority assuming dominion and control over Milner's property.
Milner also filed a negligence suit against William L. Anderson and several of his employees, including his daughter Andra Anderson, who performed the operations on Breezy and Lana. Both veterinarians refused to comment, citing the pending litigation.
In court documents, doctors William and Andra Anderson deny the charge of negligence. Merlo also denied that she'd taken Milner's property, claiming the hairdresser had "gifted the dogs" over to her.
Afghan hounds, with their luxurious long coats, super-attenuated frames, and noble bearing, have been Chuck Milner's obsession for the past 20 years. Showing them has been his addiction.
"I think it's a genetic defect," he says of his passion for Afghan hounds. "It's a love affair that goes back to 1968."
Horses were actually Milner's first love. As a youth in Missouri, he showed Tennessee Walking Horses. He fell into Afghans quite by accident. A dog owned by his childhood friend bore a litter, and the woman gave Milner a hound as a gift.
"It wasn't a show dog, but it was a sweet, sweet girl," Milner says.
Not long after, in 1970, Milner bought his first pedigreed Afghan hound for $750. He was smitten with the breed--which has a long, rich, and mysterious history, though it is a relative newcomer to the United States.
Despite a vast amount of research, no one has ever nailed down the precise origins of the Afghan Hound, once widely believed to have existed in Egypt thousands of years ago. (The theory hasn't been substantiated.) What is known for certain is that the first representatives of the breed were brought to the West--specifically England--from Afghanistan during the 1800s. In their native country, which now forbids export of the hounds, Afghans served primarily as hunt dogs, using their sight instead of smell to track down prey.
For Afghan hounds' entry into America, Milner and fellow enthusiasts have Zeppo Marx to thank. In 1931, Zeppo and his wife brought over a full-coated Afghan bitch and dog from England. A prestigious Massachusetts kennel later acquired the pair; the kennel added a champion Afghan bitch (also from England) to its breeding stock, and the trio became the cornerstone of the breed in America.
Shortly after purchasing his first Afghan puppy, Milner immersed himself in the world of dog shows, the ultimate beauty pageant in which dogs are measured against the standard for their breed. Then the various breeds are pitted against each other to see which comes closest to perfection.
A dog is not considered a champion (designated by "Ch." in front of its registered name) until he or she accumulates 15 points in shows, two of which have to be won in events big enough to be deemed "majors."
Milner spent every weekend traveling to shows throughout the country, meeting other Afghan hound owners and searching out suitable mates for breeding.
"It's the competition," he says, trying to explain the appeal of showing. "Everyone wants to be a winner. And showing dogs is the only sport I can think of where an amateur and a professional can compete, and the amateur has a good chance of winning."
While many people see breeding dogs as a matter of luck, Milner says he can discern a good match. "You have to have an eye for it," he says. "It's like having an eye for art or interior design. A lot of people don't have it."
Milner has bred several champions over the years; one of his dogs is presently ranked 8th in the country among Afghan hounds.
It is an expensive and time-consuming passion. There are travel costs and entry fees--$18 to $20 a show--not to mention the cost of caring for and feeding the animals. If Milner can't make it to a show, he pays a handler--at $40 a day, plus travel expenses--to show his dogs for him.
And to keep the dogs in competitive form, Milner must groom them at least once a week. It is no easy chore. It takes at least two hours to blow-dry each of his hounds with an industrial-strength blow dryer.
"He spent every dime he had on those dogs," says Doreen Greenberg, a local hairdresser who worked beside Milner for several years.
Greenberg remembers when Milner spent several thousand dollars converting his garage into a kennel of sorts, with chain-linked dog runs and beds so his dogs would be comfortable. "He would take turns letting them sleep in his own bed," she adds.
"It started as a hobby, a love for dogs," Milner says. "This is going to sound corny, but now it's my raison d'etre. The dogs need me to take care of them. You're only as good as your last win."
In Milner's pantheon of pooches, Breezy holds a special place.
In the mid-'70s, Milner took a long break from showing and breeding Afghan hounds. He spent his money and free time traveling the world instead. Then in 1985, he gave up a trip to Hong Kong to buy an Afghan puppy.
Milner was at a dog show in Austin when he spotted a litter of five puppies bred by a woman with a reputation for producing winners. He purchased a cream-colored puppy. Her registered name was Komars Ramblin' Rose; she was called "Breezy."
"I fell in love again," Milner says.
The following week, Milner showed Breezy at a dog show in Galveston--his first in a decade. Breezy won Winner's Bitch, garnering her several points because there were enough dogs to qualify it as a "major" show.
"It was incredible," Milner says. "She won in spite of me." Milner showed Breezy all over the country, including Alaska. "She had more frequent flyer miles than most adults."
Milner's brood of hounds grew exponentially over the following years.
"Everyone who knew him knew those dogs were his life," Greenberg recalls.
And his enthusiasm for dogs was contagious. Greenberg says Milner talked her widowed, retired father and his girlfriend into entering the dog-grooming business.
Sandra Merlo also knew of--and shared--Milner's love of dogs. A vivacious brunette, Merlo loved to hear about the latest antics of Milner's menagerie.
Merlo and Milner were good friends who met for drinks and took cooking classes together, and eventually, Merlo asked Milner if Breezy could spend the weekend with her sometime.
"That weekend lasted a week," Milner says. "I had a hard time getting [the dog] back."
Merlo asked for Breezy again, and Milner let his friend keep the dog for a few months in the spring of 1992. "Sandra and I were very close. She became enamored of my dog and I was happy to share her," Milner says.
By July, Merlo also started keeping Lana, whose registered name was Oriana Atlantis. Milner said his landlord had been giving him a hard time about the dogs, so he'd begun looking around for a new place to live.
"It was clear to everyone that Sandra was just helping Chuck out until he moved," Greenberg says. "In fact, when she came into the salon, all they talked about was Breezy and Lana."
Merlo kept Milner apprised of the dogs' activities. She and her husband took the dogs regularly to their country home near Athens, in East Texas. They even walked them in the Black Eyed Pea parade, where the exotic canines proved a big hit.
Milner eventually found a new place to live, and planned to move in during Labor Day Weekend. He says he told Merlo he'd be collecting Breezy and Lana soon.
Two days before the holiday weekend in 1992, Sandra Merlo showed up for a regular appointment with Milner. She told him she was going to Vail for the weekend and had boarded the dogs.
"I told her I would keep them, but she said she had already taken them in," Milner recalls. "I warned her to make sure the vet didn't do anything surgical to them. I had heard horror stories on the dog show circuit of dogs and cats going in for boarding and getting spayed or neutered by mistake."
On Saturday, Merlo called Milner from Vail. "I have some bad news. We've lost the girls," Milner recalls her telling him. "They're dead."
Milner was floored.
"I was absolutely flabbergasted--I screamed so loud. I don't know how I made it through work. I was in such a state of shock, I cried for a week," he says.
Veterinarian William L. Anderson called Milner later in the day from his mobile phone to explain that the dogs had bled to death. The vet said the dogs made it through surgery and appeared to be doing well when he and his daughter left for the night, Milner recalls. But the next morning, the vets arrived to find one of the dogs dead, and the other dying.
"To add insult to injury," Milner says, "he wouldn't release their bodies to me because he said they weren't mine. Then why was he calling me? He also refused to give me a copy of the autopsy."
Milner's vet convinced the Andersons to send the dogs to a crematorium in DeSoto, which delivered the ashes to Milner.
To this day, Milner can't explain how the tragedy could have happened. He believes Merlo fell in love with his dogs and couldn't bring herself to return them.
Merlo, for her part, says she's "devastated" by the lawsuit. She claims her former hairdresser had given her the dogs for keeps. "I would never have taken on such an expense if I thought it was only temporary," Merlo insists. "Not just the food, but I had them groomed every week at $90 apiece at the Perky Poodle salon. I had them dipped for fleas and had their teeth scaled."
Merlo has since acquired two new Afghan hounds through the Dallas Afghan Hound rescue project. "They're elegant, elegant animals," Merlo says. "You just walk them down the street and the cars stop."
In an odd twist to the tale, Merlo evidently tried to convince a process server that the dogs weren't dead--and pointed, as proof, to her new pair of hounds.
"She said, 'I don't know why he's doing this--the dogs are right here,'" says Michael Dupree, who served her with Milner's lawsuit.
Today, both Merlo and Milner are trying to figure out exactly why the dogs died--and if it could have been prevented. Merlo says the vet wouldn't tell her anything; Milner says Anderson would not release the autopsy results to him.
Local animal experts say that spaying is a simple, straightforward procedure with few risks and a very small mortality rate--"Less than .05 percent," according to Mary Stewart, director of operations at the Dallas SPCA.
The biggest threat to Afghan hounds during surgery is anesthesia--because Afghans possess little body fat, which is needed to metabolize the anesthetic.
Breezy and Lana, however, bled to death--a fate that has many possible causes. The hounds, for example, might have had a genetic blood-clotting disease. This could have been detected with a test before surgery.
Other theories exist. Thelbert Childers, a veterinarian at the Lovers Lane Animal Hospital, says one of the causes of uncontrollable bleeding in dogs is ehrlichia, a blood parasite that "takes up platelets." The parasite--similar to the one that causes Lyme disease--is carried by ticks. Childers says he's detected the parasite in many dogs that spend time in rural places such as East Texas.
"Even if the animal is autopsied, [the parasite] wouldn't be picked up without a special test," he says.
"Here, have a bear claw," Chuck Milner says, talking to Glamour and Glitz--GG for short--Breezy's champion granddaughter, who racked up the requisite 15 points in just over a year--quite a feat in the world of hounds. She is one of 10 Afghans Milner owns today.
"Look at how dainty she is," Milner says, while GG nibbles at the pastry.
He talks solemnly about the plans he'd had for Breezy and Lana. Each dog had the capability to produce litters of six to 10 puppies--with each puppy fetching a price of $500 to $1,000, according to court records. Breezy had already produced three litters for Milner, but he was hoping to mate her with a particular male dog--his version of Mr. Right among Afghans.
"He would have complemented her so well," Milner says. "She had such a gorgeous head. I'm still grieving. [Merlo] has destroyed our friendship and my plans to continue that bloodline."
Breezy was two points shy of becoming a champion, and Lana was five points away. Milner planned to breed them both. Lana hadn't been bred yet, but Milner had already picked out a name--Lancome--for one of her offspring.
He dares not use the name today. "It would be too bittersweet," he says.